By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 1-20-10
A year ago, on January 20, 2009, Barack Obama was the avatar of American hope, the yes we can man, promising to redeem America – and the world. A year later, his election to the presidency remains his greatest accomplishment. But his anniversary comes during a slump. His first Christmas in office was ruined by al-Qaida’s attempt to down a commercial jet, mocking his efforts to end the war on terror.
His first New Year’s Day in office marked the passing of a deadline he imposed on Iran as it gallops toward nuclear status, which the mullahs contemptuously ignored. And his first anniversary coincided with the stunning loss of what Democrats arrogantly called “Ted Kennedy’s seat” to a Republican upstart. The Massachusetts mess reflects a national problem. Polls show independent voters abandoning Obama on an unprecedented scale, even as Democrats still support the rookie president.
In fairness, being president in 2009 was not easy. When Obama started running, he, like most people, assumed the good times would continue. Bill Clinton can tell his successor that it is a lot more fun to preside over prosperity than manage a recession.
But many of Obama’s problems are Obama’s fault. In 2008, candidate Obama promised to lead from the center. He sang a song of modern American nationalism, a “yes we can” credo of working together, seeking the national sweet spot where most Americans could agree.
In his best-selling book The Audacity of Hope, Obama promised to govern as a post-Reagan liberal, understanding that big government solutions cannot answer every American problem, that culture counts and that forging compromise and building consensus could move America beyond a politics of slim, polarizing victories and partisan vilification.
Alas, in his big push for health care reform, Obama deputized the partisan, ideologically-charged Democrats in Congress to draft the legislation, and accepted pushing for a marginal victory rather than nurturing a broad-based bipartisan coalition
The Republicans share the blame. The party of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush has become the party of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, shrill, demagogic, adolescent, obstructionist. Quick to criticize but slow to envision constructive alternatives, the Republicans have been the party of “no we won’t” to Obama’s “yes we can.”
AS OBAMA deepens the budget deficit, Republicans suffer from deficient leadership. On Sunday, when Obama campaigned in Massachusetts for Martha Coakley, her opponent Scott Brown held a “people’s rally” without national politicians, generating star power from a pitcher, Curt Schilling, a quarterback, Doug Flutie, and an actor, John Ratzenberger, who played the kooky mailman Cliff Clavin on Cheers.
Still, Obama’s healing magic was supposed to transcend the partisan divisions, and his efforts have been too half-hearted given the depth of the divide. The president needed to serve up serious models of reconciliation and joint envisioning on health care rather than simply serving cookies to some Republican congressional guests at last year’s Super Bowl.
Abroad, America’s enemies have been even more uncooperative. Obama has shown Carteresque instincts, punishing friends while kowtowing to enemies, appeasing dictators while disappointing dissidents, viewing terrorism as a police matter not a military threat. All too often, his instincts have been wrong. He has been far too measured in reacting to the “Green Revolution” in Iran, protecting his thus far feeble outreach to the mullahs while underestimating just how much he could have helped Iran’s protesters given the international pop star he has become.
He first reacted to the Fort Hood massacre legalistically, treating it as a regrettable criminal deviation rather than as a link in an unholy jihadist chain targeting Americans, Westerners, innocents. And by embracing the narrative that Israeli settlements are the biggest obstacles to Middle East peace, Obama clumsily bolstered Palestinian rejectionists, who happily placed more preconditions on Israel before even beginning negotiations while shifting attention away from their genocidal refusal to accept its existence, the true heart of the problem.
Nevertheless, Obama has disappointed his leftist allies by staying in Iraq, sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan and approving drone air strikes in Pakistan. These moves reflect the kind of centrist pragmatism Obama peddled in his campaign, rather than the knee-jerk leftism he has too frequently relied on in fighting the recession, seeking a needed solution to the health care problem and dealing with Iran, the Palestinians and the Saudis.
HEREIN LIES the path to redemption. Americans still like their new president and want him to succeed. “No Drama, Obama” has assembled a strong team with few embarrassments, scandals or distractions from the people’s business, thus far. Obama himself has come across as serious, sober, scandal-free and still seductive, not yet frittering away all that rhetorical and political magic he deployed so effectively in 2008 to dazzle America and the world.
In the 1980s, conservatives used to cry “Let Reagan be Reagan,” urging White House aides to banish the too-pragmatic, centrist and accommodating Reagan leading America in favor of the right-wing anti-communist they adored. Today, pragmatists and centrists must cry “Let Obama be Obama,” urging his aides to banish the big-government-oriented, budget-busting, war-on-terror-negating, 1960s liberal he appeared so frequently to be this past year in favor of the more moderate, restrained, realistic, post-partisan visionary he promised to be last year.
It is true that, historically few presidents have been able to build popularity their second year, and that it has long been difficult for presidents to free themselves from the gravitational pull of a congressional majority. But Barack Obama did not become president by remaining imprisoned by historical precedents.
Just as his “yes we can” campaign broke free of the shackles of the past, in this, his sophomore year, America’s rookie president must break free from the shackles of liberal Democratic orthodoxy.
In 2004, Barack Obama wowed America with a vision of a 21st century, post-baby-boomer liberal nationalism. He synthesized the liberal idealism of the ’60s with the conservative anti-government skepticism of the ’80s, balancing the selfishness of the 1980s with the altruism of the 1960s, while embracing America as a positive, powerful force for freedom and justice in the world without delusions that undermine the primary national mission of self-preservation. Let us hope that Obama sets the “reset button” on his own presidency in 2010, for his sake, America’s sake and the world’s sake.
The writer is professor of history at McGill University on leave in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity, and the Challenges of Today and The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.